High Roller (2003)

High Roller (2003)High Roller, a 2003 movie loosely based on the life of Stu Ungar, depicts the dangers of addiction to gambling, especially poker, and the effect they can have on a person and the people around them. While "High Roller" (also called "Stuey") was met with poor critical reviews and a lack luster greeting by audiences, poker players consider this movie to be a powerful and essential part of any serious poker movie enthusiast’s collection. High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story is based on the book One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey Ungar by Peter Alson and stars Michael Imperioli (Sopranos, Goodfellas), Renee Faia and Pat Morita (Happy Days, The Karate Kid).

Background Information on Stu Ungar

Stuart Errol Ungar was born on September 8th, 1953 in Manhattan, New York. He was raised by Jewish parents, his father a loan shark that operated an underground gambling club. Although his father attempted to keep Stu away from gambling after seeing the effects it could have on the visitors to his gambling club, Stu began playing Gin and rapidly built a name for himself as a talented player. After his father’s death from a heart attack in 1966, Stu began studying poker with the alleged organized crime leader Victor Romano. Possibly due to his violent connections and difficult childhood, Stu developed a very harsh attitude towards his opponents while playing poker.

He was known for berating and ridiculing many of the people he played with but was protected by very powerful figures in organized crime. One story describes Ungar’s confrontation with another player as quickly defeating him and then ridiculing his skills as a poker player. Allegedly, the poker player attempted to hit Ungar with his chair but was stopped by people surrounding the table. Some reports say that the man that tried to attack Ungar was later found shot to death but there are some claims that it was Ungar that tried to strike the opponent and no one was shot as a result of the confrontation.

Ungar won his first Gin tournament at the age of 10. During the 1960s, he left school to support his family by playing Gin and quickly gained a reputation as being one of the finest players in the city of New York. After regularly defeating even the top professional Gin players, Ungar began having a very difficult time finding games that would allow him to play, despite offering opponents handicaps such as being able to look at the last card in the deck, only have to pay a portion of the money they lost or always forcing Ungar to play from the dealer position. As a result of this, Ungar moved to Las Vegas to reunite with a former girlfriend and begin playing poker as a profession.

Although Ungar went on to win five World Series of Poker bracelets, he always regarded his Gin play as being his strongest gift. He was always quoted as saying "Some day, I suppose it’s possible for someone to be a better no limit Holdem player than me. I doubt it, but it could happen. But, I swear to you, I don’t see how anyone could ever play Gin better than me."

Film Highlights of High Roller

The movie High Roller focuses mainly on the fall of Stu Ungar than the rise. In fact, in one scene, Ungar’s fingers are shown to be burned black from a crack pipe and he appears to not have showered in at least a week. Many critics regard Imperioli as being too old to play Ungar at the time of filming but others regard his skinny and frail appearance to be crucial to the role. Director A.W. Vidner reportedly chose to highlight the fall of Stu Ungar to show how an addiction to gambling could be just as dangerous, or perhaps more dangerous, than an addiction to crack, heroine or cocaine.

One of the highlights of the film shows how Ungar won an estimated $30 million during his poker career but died of heart complications, due to years of drug abuse, with only $882 in his pocket, a cash advance from his longtime gambling friend Bob Stupak. Despite having one of the most successful poker (and gambling, overall) careers of all time, a collection had to be taken to pay for his funeral expenses when he died on November 22nd, 1998.

What Poker Players Can Learn from High Roller

The lessons of High Roller are quite apparent. In essence, the film shows how dangerous poker can become if it is allowed to become an addiction. The warnings included in the story of, quite possibly, the greatest poker player of all time, are still applicable to gambling today. If you allow gambling to become the governing force behind your life, it does not matter how successful you become, you are setting yourself up for a dangerous addiction that could ultimately have even more dangerous consequences.

However, this does not imply that success in poker leads to addiction and an early death. Just like anything in life, High Roller is a instructional tale about how to avoid going down the same road as Stu Ungar and letting the practice of gambling become a serious illness. All of the basic rules of maintaining a healthy relationship with gambling still apply and are accented by this film: Never bet more money than you can afford to lose, do not allow poker to consume other aspects of your life and quite while you’re ahead.

Too many bankrolls have been won and lost because the owner wanted more. High Roller gives a detailed and depressing view into what can happen. Besides his legacy as being one of the best poker players of all time, Stu Ungar will always be remembered as an example of just how dangerous gambling can be, if it becomes an obsession.